July 1st, 2020

What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Two jars filled with liquid, one containing some herbs, with flowers visible in the background.

Complementary and alternative medicine — or CAM — refers to a group of diverse medical/healthcare systems, practices, and products that differ from the standard for traditional Western medicine. The difference between complementary and alternative medicine is that:

  • Complementary medicine is intended to work alongside conventional medicine
  • Alternative medicine is intended to work in place of conventional medicine

For the purposes of this article, we will refer to them together since the same treatment could be used as complementary or alternative medicine, depending on the context. Complementary and alternative medicine continues to increase in popularity. Just because a method of treatment is not historically or conventionally used, does not mean that the method of treatment is invalid; it just means that there is a different standard to go by. Prior to understanding the validity of CAM, you must first understand its various uses, the types of CAM, the intent, and the effectiveness of CAM as a whole.

Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The umbrella of what is considered CAM is large and nuanced. To a point, many could argue that any alternative route to traditional or peer-reviewed clinical medicine could be considered CAM. For example, something as simple as changing your environment in pursuit of better mental health can be considered CAM. Generally, there are five areas under which CAM falls.

Biologically Based Practices

Biologically based practices generally consist of herbal remedies or other natural methods that are not traditionally utilized in clinical medicine. Examples of this include dietary supplements, herbal products, and any other therapy found in nature.

Energy Therapies & Medicine

Any type of therapy that involves the use of energy fields is considered energy therapies. There are two primary categories of energy therapy:

  1. Biolelectomagnetic-based therapy: This refers to using electromagnetic energy fields for therapeutic aid. You can most commonly see the use with the following fields:
    1. Alternating current fields: voltage that is created by switching polarity directions;
    2. Direct current fields: electricity created by rubbing certain materials against each other;
    3. Magnetic fields: currents that are created to magnetically ground the human body to the earth;
    4. Pulsed fields: low voltage pulses applied to the body.
  2. Biofield therapy: This refers to the intent to use energy fields to infiltrate and cleanse the body. This can be done in a variety of ways but it generally is associated with applying pressure or directly placing your body within the energy field. Examples include:
    1. Acupuncture: the insertion of thin needles at strategic points on the body;
    2. Qi Gong: a mind-body-spirit method that has a wide variety of training paths;
    3. Reiki: a spiritual practice that focuses on passing energy from one person to another through physical touch.

Manipulative & Body-Based Methods

Manipulative and body-based CAM methods are a system of therapies that manually moves or manipulates one (or multiple) parts of the body. These are generally focused on addressing some sort of structural imbalance within the body — common examples include:

  • Chiropractic care: physical adjustments or alterations to the spine and other body parts;
  • Massage therapy: manipulating the soft tissues within your body;
  • Naprapathy: the use of medicine and nutritional counseling to treat various tissue disorders;
  • Reflexology: the application of pressure to the ears, hands, and ears;
  • Tuina: an array of high and low-pressure massage techniques intended to restore function to muscles and joints;
  • Craniosacral therapy: using gentle touch to manipulate the joints in the cranium, said to “affect pressure and circulation of cerebrospinal fluid.”

Mind-Body Medicine

Mind-body CAM comprises some of the broader examples of what CAM is. These methods use the mind’s ability to control body functions and self-regulation — various common examples include:

  • Creative arts such as painting, dancing, writing, etc.;
  • Hypnotherapy: guided relaxation through hypnosis;
  • Meditation and mindfulness: stretching and breathing techniques employed to bring awareness of the body. The actual practice varies entirely from person to person;
  • Religious individuals may use prayer.

Whole Medical Systems

“Whole medical systems” refer to the theories and practices that have evolved away from, and earlier than traditional medicine that is practiced standardly. A few examples of whole medical systems are:

  • Ayurveda: a Sanskrit ancient technique that uses enlightenment to promote mental and physical well-being;
  • Homeopathy: a holistic, natural alternative to conventional drugs;
  • Naturopathy: a technique that performs an analysis of the entire body for diagnosis and treatment for a particular ailment that uses the most natural, least harmful methods of analysis and treatment.

What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine Used to Treat?

CAM can be used to treat — or alleviate — a large variety of symptoms and ailments. Some choose to use CAM for cancer treatment, and others use CAM for headaches. Some use CAM for alleviating common teen mental health conditions when they are trying to avoid using various mental health medications due to their effects. Numerous individuals are using CAM for withdrawal management as part of a rehabilitation regimen. Lastly, CAM can be used as a helpful relapse prevention tool for those that struggle with a substance use disorder.

You should be aware that CAM can be useful for all things general wellness, and it does not necessarily need to be used to treat or cure something. There are no specific parameters defined for what CAM can be used to treat.

Who Uses Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

CAM is used by a large number of patients for a variety of reasons. A lot of the general population unknowingly performs CAM practices every so often or even regularly. Some medical professionals may be hesitant to prescribe alternative medicine for malpractice purposes. Other health professionals may suggest CAM alongside mainstream Western medicine. Generally, academic doctors’ views of CAM fall under one of the following three categories:

  1. Enthusiasts: those who support CAM fully, and see the merit and viability of its managed use in healthcare;
  2. Skeptics: those who are adamantly adherent to traditional Western medicine;
  3. Undecided: those who are generally unsure where they sit due to personal unfamiliarity of knowledge surrounding the topic/the lack of substantial peer-reviewed research, but they are not intrinsically opposed.

Even though some may be skeptical, according to a study on the prevalence, cost, and patterns of CAM use, one in three respondents used some form of CAM regularly.

Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine Effective?

Many are still considering the effectiveness of various forms of CAM, and especially so in lieu of traditional medical standards and supporting research. But the integration of CAM is rising, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Thus, some medical professionals and insurance companies are backing their use. A study by the World Health Organization found a similar trend.

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